On June 22, 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. It was one of the most farsighted accomplishments in our history. The act is most remembered for allowing veterans to go to college and providing job training. But in addition, it established hospitals and offered low-cost loans to buy homes and start businesses, plus one year of unemployment compensation.
And yet, its passage was not a slam dunk. Some thought providing unemployment benefits would discourage people from looking for work (sound familiar?). At the time of its passage, college was considered mostly an upper-class privilege. The president of the University of Chicago said “Education is not a device for coping with mass unemployment . . . colleges and universities will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles.”
But something had to be done. Not only was it the least the nation could do for the people who had risked their lives in its defense, but the turmoil in the aftermath of World War I was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Returning veterans from that war were offered a modest parting bonus, then discovered many of their prewar jobs were gone. In the fall of 1922, a compensation measure was passed by Congress, but President Warren Harding vetoed it as being too expensive. The final result was the inadequate World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924, more commonly known as the Bonus Bill. This led to the 1932 march on Washington, D.C. by a group of desperate veterans, who were ultimately chased away by the U.S. Army they had served in.
For World War II, we had to do better, and we did. The G.I. Bill was a major factor in postwar prosperity. From 1945 to 1956, about half of the veterans took advantage of one or more provisions of the bill. Veterans transitioned smoothly to academic life. Over two million veterans went to college, with three-and-a-half million attending technical or vocational school. Many institutions almost doubled their student body.
Unfortunately, the benefits were not always fairly applied. The racism of that era ensured that many minority veterans were not able to take full advantage of the bill’s benefits. While bill’s language did not specifically discriminate, it was structured in a way that veterans of color were excluded, and we’re living with that impact today.
Although the G.I. Bill was a vast improvement over what was offered to the veterans of World War I, its uneven application sowed the seeds for future problems. It has become both a milestone to be celebrated and a cautionary tale for our social and economic recovery today.
“G.I. Bill of Rights,” National Archives Foundation (https://www.archivesfoundation.org/documents/g-i-bill-rights/)
“The G.I. Bill,” Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/postwarera/postwar-era/a/the-gi-bill)
World War Adjusted Compensation Act (https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1399.html)
“How the GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans,” History.com (https://www.history.com/news/gi-bill-black-wwii-veterans-benefits)